What are ‘meta-emotions’? How our feelings about feelings affect our lives..
STYLIST MAGAZINE - ALEX SIMS - What if the problem is not how we feel, but how we feel about our feelings? Why understanding our ‘meta-emotions’ can make us happier and help us manage our relationships.
Have you ever felt so overwhelmed with emotion you can’t begin to explain why you feel a certain way? It can be hard to unpick the reason we’re feeling angry, upset or guilty; why a moment of elation has mutated into regret, or fear has morphed into sadness. If you’re ever unable to articulate your emotions or find yourself baffled about why you’ve reacted to an event in a certain way, it could all be down to your ‘meta-emotions’.
Meta-emotion is a term used more and more commonly in psychological circles, and it underpins the way we go about our day-to-day lives. Understanding how our meta-emotions work and what they reveal about us can be crucial to our mental wellbeing and can also improve our relationships. “When I found out about meta-emotions it was game-changing,” says Zoe Aston, a London-based therapist, mental health consultant and author of Your Mental Health Workout, who uses the concept of meta-emotions with her clients to help them change their perspective.
So, what exactly are meta-emotions and how can understanding them better improve our emotional and mental wellbeing?
What are meta-emotions?
Simply put, meta-emotions are feelings about feelings – secondary emotions that stem from a core emotion we’re already experiencing. For example, you might feel sad and cry while watching a film and then feel embarrassed about the fact you’re crying. Or, you might get angry about a problem at work and then feel guilty about it.
“Meta-emotions often create emotional conflict in our heads,” says Aston. “Everyone is affected by them and they underpin most aspects of our lives.” If you think you’ve been experiencing a maelstrom of emotions at the moment, the pandemic might be to blame. “People have felt a huge amount of meta-emotion about Covid as it’s changed and impacted our lives, causing a vast number of feelings to rise up,” says relationship strategist Mairead Molloy.
“For example, you might be working from home and feel guilty because you feel like you should be in the office. Then you feel guilty for feeling guilty. It’s a head wrecker.”
“Meta-emotions are deeply rooted from childhood or the society we’ve grown up in
What do we know about meta-emotions?
Psychological study into meta-emotions is still relatively new, only really taking off in the 1990s. The majority of research has centred on the emotions between parents and children, however psychologists are increasingly using the term to explore how our emotions are impacted by systemic societal dynamics.
“Meta-emotions can be really systemic,” says Aston, explaining that our feelings are often deeply rooted, stemming from behaviours we’ve picked up in childhood or the society we’ve grown up in.
“Our emotions are ingrained from a very young age before our pre-frontal cortex is able to think logically. It usually stems back to what we are taught by our caregivers, teachers, peers and what we see on TV,” Aston continues. “For example, if a child gets sad and a parent has told the child to dismiss that sadness, the child learns that sadness should be avoided. This gets cemented in our belief system as we get older.” In this instance, the child may grow up to feel guilt, shame or resentment as a result of being sad.
How can meta-emotions affect us?
“Meta-emotions play a really critical role for our mental health,” says Molloy, explaining that not accepting meta-emotions can cause depression, anxiety and lower overall wellbeing. Aston uses the example of the child who has learned that sadness is something to be dismissed. “That person might grow up and create what we call an ‘adaption’,” says Aston. “To avoid sadness, the person might decide they’ll always be ‘the happy one’ or the ‘cheerful friend’. However, they may end up feeling anxious because despite trying to be happy, deep down they might feel really sad but they’re avoiding it.” “When we repress feelings that’s when our risk of developing anxious, depressive or disordered symptoms increases,” adds Aston.
“Most people don’t really understand their emotions,” explains Molloy. “By understanding and regulating our emotions we can develop better people skills, resolve conflict easier and improve our mental wellbeing.”
“Meta-emotions play a really critical role for our mental health”
What role do meta-emotions play in our relationships?
Meta-emotions affect most aspects of our lives. Lots of us will find our emotions activated by all sorts of specific things, from a particular tone of voice to the way someone looks at us, or not getting an email response as quickly as we’d like.
However, one of the biggest parts of our lives to activate our emotions is our relationships, be it with work colleagues, friends or romantic partners.
“When I work with couples, the issue is often that both people are being activated by different emotions at the same time,” says Aston. “So, while one person might be anxious about work, the other may feel they’re not being paid attention to and feel a sense of abandonment.”
Molloy calls this phenomenon “meta-emotion mismatch”: when people in close relationships react to situations in different ways causing clashing feelings and misunderstandings.
“Meta-emotions also affect the way we judge other people,” says Aston. “For example, if someone often gets angry at work and you believe anger is a bad emotion then you might label that person as bad. But, if you were taught from a young age that anger is an acceptable and helpful emotion you might decide that person is very competent.”
How can manage our meta-emotions?
“Awareness is key,” says Aston, explaining that understanding why we feel a certain way about a situation and why it sparks certain feelings is essential for improving our emotional wellbeing.
“Having a really good handle on your narrative around emotions, specifically core emotions like anger, grief, shame, sadness, happiness and love, can help you learn to identify when those feelings are being activated and how to deal with them,” adds Aston. For Aston, it’s not about dismissing meta-emotions or trying to undo them, but realising why we feel that way so we can deal with emotions more efficiently. Aston likes to talk about feelings as if they are a muscle that can exercise, work out and hone, just like we would do with our bodies. “Just like exercise, working on our emotions may cause us pain but ultimately it makes us stronger,” explains Aston. “This helps us gain emotional resilience and tolerate more complex and deeper emotions.”
“Just like exercise, working on our emotions may cause us pain but ultimately makes us stronger
To work out our emotional muscles, Aston suggests having regular check-ins with yourself. This involves slowing down and taking some time to reflect on your feelings. This can be done by literally sitting in front of a mirror and reflecting on an emotional experience you’ve just had and examining how it leaves you talking to yourself.
“If someone else has got a promotion at work that’s made you feel jealous, sit down and look at yourself in a mirror and draw your attention mindfully to the feeling of jealousy,” says Aston. “See what self-talk comes up. You might start to hear shame or sadness. The trick is to replace this with helpful self-talk: it’s OK you’re jealous, you probably didn’t do anything wrong. That’s more reassuring.”
If you find this difficult, Aston suggests talking to yourself in the same way you would a child who feels this way. This will evoke the caring side within you.
Keep a mood journal.
Molloy suggests keeping a mood journal to keep track of how you’re feeling and to make sure you’re acknowledging your meta-emotions.
“It’s about thinking ‘Why am I guilty?’, ‘What am I sad about?’ or ‘Why am I angry?’,” says Molloy. “A mood journal gives you a record of where your feelings have come from, what responses have been helpful and can then help you change how you respond in future. It’s a form of self-coaching that gives you time to express yourself and give yourself a break.”